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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kay Olson went back to school at 42 and went on to become an ‘extraordinary champion’ for local COVID vaccine access

WSU nursing faculty member Kay Olson is photographed on Feb. 21 at the MLK Community Center in Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review For The Spokesman-Review

When Kay Olson was fresh out of high school, she had to choose between working to pay her bills or continuing school. She chose work but never lost the desire to continue her education. Decades later, she went back to school and decided to become a nurse.

Now working at the Washington State University Spokane School of Nursing, Olson was key in helping the Spokane Regional Health District implement COVID-19 vaccination clinics. Her work has earned her the 2023 YWCA Women of Achievement award in science, technology and environment. Olson and the other winners will be honored during a luncheon March 9 at the Davenport Grand Hotel.

Olson grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, but midway through her senior year her family moved and she graduated from Monument Valley High School on the Navajo Nation reservation. She then moved to Phoenix with the goal of attending community college to be a dietitian. She got a job as a clerk at J.C. Penney, but after two semesters of college, her boss told her school was interfering with her work.

“I had to pay rent and eat, so school lost,” she said. “I was not very happy that they made me choose.”

She continued to work and eventually got married and had children, but she never lost sight of her goal to finish school. “I didn’t make it back to school until I was 42,” she said. “When my youngest went to school I thought, well, it’s my turn.”

She was no longer interested in being a dietitian. She thought of becoming a teacher, but at the time she lived in Idaho, where teachers have a low starting wage. She met several nurses and talked with them about their work. After she moved to the Tri-Cities, she joined the fourth cohort to take nursing classes at the new WSU Tri-Cities campus.

“I knew going through the program that I didn’t care for hospital work,” she said. “My heart was in the community.”

After graduating in 2007, Olson immediately started WSU’s master’s program in community health. She volunteered at a free health clinic and worked as a teaching assistant at WSU Tri-Cities. She was hired full-time after she earned her master’s. She has taught community health, among other subjects, since the spring of 2009. Each summer for more than a decade, Olson worked as an occupational health nurse, including at a clinic at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

She moved in 2019 to WSU Spokane, where she is the clinical lead for Public and Community Health courses. She creates opportunities for nursing students to work in the community and learn how poverty, homelessness and lack of education can impact health.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Olson worked with the Spokane Regional Health District to develop a community health clinic rotation for nursing students, and helped to recruit and train people to give vaccinations at the many clinics that popped up.

Olson said she enjoys exposing her students to community health. “I think it’s just the culture and the environment,” she said. “You work more with the vulnerable populations. I find that I have a heart for that.”

Olson said she has the best of both worlds, working as a nurse and a teacher. Though she is 62, she has no plans to stop anytime soon. “I love working and it really energizes me,” she said. “I love what I’m doing. I love being out in the community.”

She’s glad she was able to fulfill her dream of going back to school, and that her children watched her do it. All three of her children graduated from college and two hold master’s degrees.

“I always knew this was something I had to do for myself and my kids,” she said. “Going back to school was the best thing I ever did for myself.”

Anne Mason, associate dean for Academic Affairs at the WSU College of Nursing, has worked with Olson since 2010 and said Olson has the ability to bring together the best of nursing and community work. “She is so thoughtful and really has a way of promoting an entity and individuals,” she said.

Olson’s work was key to COVID-19 vaccine access in Spokane County, Mason said. “She really is so deserving,” Mason said. “She was one of our extraordinary champions during the COVID pandemic.”

Olson, however, said that while she’s happy her work is being recognized, she’s not so sure she deserves the spotlight. She also said she was part of a team effort.

“In no way did I do any of this by myself,” she said. “I don’t like to be the center of attention at all.”